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Welcome to a coup

Farley Mahabir left for Moscow in August hoping to undergo months of intense tae kwon do training and get a close look at Soviet culture.

He got a much closer look than he bargained for.

One week after the 17-year-old Crystal River athlete and his older brother, Ed, arrived in Moscow, they began to see explosions in the night sky.

They didn't know what was happening, but the frightening truth soon became apparent: Those were gunshots, not fireworks, and the streets no longer were safe.

A doomed coup was under way, a struggle that derailed then-President Mikhail Gorbachev's government for three days before the effort collapsed.

"We didn't know (the coup) was even happening," Farley Mahabir said last week as he prepared to return to Moscow after a stay with his family during the holiday season.

"We found out later that tanks had come in the streets. At one point, we were ready to leave."

Acquaintances in Moscow made it clear that foreigners should lie low for a while. The Mahabirs, both skilled in martial arts, could defend themselves on the streets in normal circumstances. Gunfire and Molotov cocktails would have presented a tougher challenge.

"It was right on the verge of anything happening," Mahabir said. "No one had an idea. Our Moscow people had no idea of what was going to happen."

For the most part, the brothers said, the Russian routine went on as normal. In public, though, there were subtle changes.

"We were told to stay away from crowds," Ed Mahabir said. "The soldiers would shoot into crowds."

Ed Mahabir had intended to accompany his brother on the trip and leave once Farley was settled in. But he almost didn't get out.

The Mahabirs are Canadian citizens, in the United States as resident aliens. Through the help of the Canadian Embassy in Moscow, Ed secured an exit visa just in time to get back to the University of Florida, where he graduated in December.

"Another week and I couldn't (have gone) back," Ed Mahabir said. "Supposedly it was no big deal, which it wasn't, (but then) we had the coup."

Farley Mahabir learned of the Moscow opportunity through the International Tae Kwon Do Federation, which was promoting tae kwon do in the Soviet Union, where martial arts had been banned until two years ago. The federation was launching an intensive-training program there. Anyone in the group's 38 member countries holding a first- or second-degree black belt, and willing to pay his way, could apply.

Farley was chosen to attend, and his family agreed to pay his expenses, including lodging in a Moscow hotel.

The Mahabir brothers left Crystal River earlier this month to return to Russia, now a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

Just as he did on his previous trip, Farley Mahabir will be able to work out twice a day for two hours at a time under the guidance of sixth-degree black belt Lee Yung Suck. Ed Mahabir also will be able to get that training, and hopes to earn his second-degree black belt by the end of the summer.

The intensive training in Moscow allows a student to move up the ladder quickly _ the fourth-degree black belt that Mahabir expects to earn normally would take seven years.

When he gets to fourth degree, or dan (pronounced "don"), he will be eligible to teach anywhere in the world.

"More than just achieving the rank in that amount of time, I'm envious of (him) just being there and just training," said the Mahabirs' tae kwon do teacher, Pete Thibado, a fourth-degree black belt.

Farley intends to follow his brother to the University of Florida. He has postponed his senior year at Crystal River High School, but he hopes to parlay his honors and advanced placement courses (he has a 3.9 grade-point average) into early admission to UF.

And if a professor assigns an essay on recent Soviet history, Farley will knock it out with the ease of a roundhouse kick.